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Some States Resist Offering Tuition Breaks to Undocumented Immigrants

29 Jul

Missouri and Arizona are pushing back against a tide of states that have been making college more affordable for undocumented immigrants or those who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children.

“The trend has been to offer access to in-state tuition rates and, more recently, state financial aid to students who grew up in the country, regardless of their status,” said Tanya Broder, senior attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. She called Missouri and Arizona “outliers.”

Earlier this month Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich appealed a May court ruling that had allowed the Maricopa County Community College District, one of the nation’s largest, to charge in-state tuition to students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, status.

More than 900,000 individuals nationwide who came to the U.S. before age 16 have been granted a reprieve from deportation, and given work authorization, under the 2012 Obama administration program.

At least 20 states, including Florida, Texas, New York and California are among those that offer “tuition equity” to students regardless of their legal status, according to a Law Center tally.

A handful of others, including Ohio, Virginia, Massachusetts and New Hampshire provide in-state tuition rates to students who hold DACA, status, Ms. Broder says.

The Arizona appeal throws into question the tuition policies not just at community colleges, but also at Arizona’s public four-year universities. The Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University, announced shortly after the original court decision that it, too, would allow DACA students who established residency to pay in-state tuition.

Ryan Anderson, director of communications for Mr. Brnovich’s office, said the judge in that case “took a great leap in logic” to equate “legal presence” in the U.S. with “legal status.”

Carmen Cornejo, an activist for undocumented students in Arizona, called the appeal “a waste of taxpayer money,” saying that the court was clear in its original decision and the tide has shifted nationally toward offering in-state tuition to DACA students. She said students she has spoken with are fairly confident the court’s decision will stand, but they remain concerned that costs will jump after they’re enrolled in school.

Arizona voters in 2006 approved a proposition stating that benefits, such as in-state tuition, shouldn’t be extended to people who don’t have legal status.

While the appeal is pending, the Arizona regents will adhere to the policy that extends in-state tuition to DACA students, said Sarah Harper, the governing body’s director of public affairs. Nearly 30,000 people have DACA status in the state, though the regents don’t have a tally of how many are enrolled in its universities.

In Missouri, lawmakers passed a bill requiring recipients of the state’s A+ Scholarship program to be citizens soon after the body that oversees the scholarship extended eligibility to include DACA students.

Though Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed that bill, Republican Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, who had introduced a similar version in the House, said he believes the two chambers have enough votes to overrule the veto in September.

Missouri’s latest budget also includes language barring colleges and universities that receive public funds from charging DACA students anything less than out-of-state tuition rates. Though Mr. Nixon has questioned whether that passage is enforceable, Mr. Fitzpatrick said schools can disregard it at their peril.

“If universities decide to ignore that language, I’m sure that there will be consequences in the budget process next year,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

The University of Missouri system has more than 20 DACA students enrolled across its four campuses, and plans to “follow the expressed will of the legislature,” when even more students start school this fall, said John Fougere, the system’s chief communications officer.

Meanwhile, private schools and foundations are looking to plug holes in higher-education funding for students with questionable legal standing.

Starting this fall, Emory University will provide need-based scholarships to DACA students enrolling in its College of Arts and Sciences.

And recently, Facebook Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $5 million to TheDream.US, a scholarship fund for students without legal status.